States sue HHS to overturn public health emergency rule

Texas and Oklahoma filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on January 18, 2023, arguing that an Obama-era federal regulation issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) granting the World Health Organization (WHO) authority to define what constitutes a public health emergency infringes on national and state sovereignty.

Fifteen states in July 2022 filed a petition asking HHS to repeal the rule. The Biden administration denied the petition in October 2022. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), joined by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond (R), filed suit, arguing in part that the HHS rule infringes on U.S. and state sovereignty by unlawfully delegating power to a foreign entity. Paxton argued in a press release, “Absolutely no foreign power should have the ability to exert police powers over Texas or any other state, and that is especially true for a foreign entity with as troubled of a history as the WHO.”

HHS had not responded to the lawsuit as of January 25, 2023. The agency did not respond to the July 2022 petition but stated at the time that it “will continue to make its own independent decisions” and asserted that it is “important to include references to WHO in the definition of ‘public health emergency’ to inform the public of the circumstances that HHS/CDC may consider.”

The date for oral argument in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas had not been set as of January 25, 2023.

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Wisconsin Supreme Court primary less than three weeks away

The top two vote-getters in the Feb. 21 nonpartisan primary for Wisconsin Supreme Court will advance to a general election on April 4. Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow, former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell, and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz are running.

Justice Patience Roggensack, whose term will expire in July, is not running for re-election.

While supreme court elections are officially nonpartisan, the court is considered to have a 4-3 conservative majority. With Roggensack—a member of the court’s conservative majority—retiring, this election will determine the ideological control of the court. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Corrinne Hess, “[Mitchell and Protasiewicz] are running as liberal candidates. Kelly and Dorow are running as conservative candidates.”

Dorow joined the Waukesha County Circuit Court in 2012 after being appointed by Gov. Scott Walker (R). In her campaign announcement, Dorow said, “We must replace Justice Roggensack with a judicial conservative who will fairly and faithfully apply the law as written to the facts of the cases that come before the court.” Roggensack endorsed Dorow in January 2023.

Kelly previously served on the supreme court from 2016—when Walker appointed him to fill a vacancy—to 2020. Kelly said, “If an activist were to win next April, Wisconsin’s public policy would be imposed by four lawyers sitting in Madison instead of being adopted through our constitutional processes. I won’t let that happen on my watch.” Justice Rebecca Bradley endorsed Kelly in November 2022.

Mitchell, who was first elected to the Dane County Circuit Court in 2016, said, “[P]reserving the integrity and independence of the court has never been more important. … Wisconsinites deserve a justice who has the highest respect for the Wisconsin Constitution and is committed to ensuring that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is an instrument of balance and justice rather than partisan divide.” Former Justice Louis Butler endorsed Mitchell in June 2022.

Protasiewicz was first elected to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2014. Protasiewicz said, “We must restore confidence that judges aren’t just trying to reach their favored outcomes, but actually applying the law and the constitution. I’m running to restore integrity to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and get politics out of the courtroom.” Justice Rebecca Dallet endorsed Protasiewicz in May 2022.

Wisconsin reporters and political commentators have identified abortion policy, election administration, and legislative redistricting as some of the legal issues the court could address following the election. According to the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Alexander Shur, “With the court’s ideological balance up for grabs, the candidate elected in April will play a decisive role in upcoming cases that may include the legality of Wisconsin’s near-complete 1849 abortion ban, fights over legislative redistricting and the power of the executive branch in administering laws.” Wisconsin has a divided government where neither party holds a trifecta. The governor is Democrat Tony Evers, while the Republican Party controls both chambers of the state legislature.

University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse political analyst Anthony Chergosky said in November 2022 that the entrance of a fourth candidate “injected [the race] with a lot of unpredictability,” noting the possibility of two conservative or two liberal candidates advancing to the general election. WKOW TV Capitol Bureau Chief A.J. Bayatpour and Cap Times Capitol Bureau Chief Jessie Opoien each said in January 2023 that they did not think it was likely that two conservative or two liberal candidates would advance.

Heading into the 2020 election, the court had a 5-2 conservative majority. In that election, liberal Jill Karofsky defeated Kelly 55.2% to 44.7%.

Wisconsin is one of two states holding elections for state supreme court in 2023.

54.85% of state legislature seats are Republican, 44.45% Democratic

At the end of January 2023, 54.85% of all state legislature seats in the United States are Republican while 44.45% seats are Democratic. There are 7,386 state legislative seats in the country.

Democrats hold 854 state Senate seats and 2,429 state House seats, gaining six Senate seats and gaining 31 House seats since last month. Republicans hold 1,108 state Senate seats and 2,943 state House seats, gaining three House seats and gaining 25 House seats since last month.

Independent or third-party legislators hold 23 seats across ten different states, including 20 state House seats and three state Senate seats. There are 21 vacant state House seats and 8 vacant state Senate seats across 21 different states.

Compared to January 2022, Democrats have lost eight state Senate seats (862 v. 854) and gained 20 state House seats (2,409 v. 2,429). Republicans have gained 14 state Senate seats (1,094 v. 1,108) and gained 21 state House seats (2,922 v. 2,943). 

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Citizen initiative related to government borrowing for state entities and electric cooperatives certified to the legislature in Maine

On Jan. 26, 2023, the Maine secretary of state announced that enough valid signatures were submitted for an initiative that would require voter approval of borrowing above $1 billion by state entities and electric cooperatives. The initiative is now certified to the Maine State Legislature. If the Legislature does not approve the initiative, it would appear on the Nov. 2023 ballot.

Out of the 93,000 signatures submitted by the No Blank Checks campaign, 68,807 signatures were found to be valid. In Maine, the signature requirement is currently 67,682 valid signatures. This number is calculated as 10% of the total votes cast at the previous gubernatorial election.

The No Blank Checks initiative could be on the ballot alongside an initiative to create a consumer-owned electric utility. In Oct. 2022, the Our Power campaign, which supports the Pine Tree Power Company initiative, submitted more than 80,000 signatures to the secretary of state, and 69,735 of those signatures were verified. The initiative would create a municipal consumer-owned electric transmission and distribution utility called the Pine Tree Power Company, which would replace Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant. Our Power Maine stated, “The company’s purposes are to provide for its customer-owners in this State reliable, affordable electric transmission and distribution services and to help the State meet its climate, energy and connectivity goals in the most rapid and affordable manner possible.” The campaign opposing the initiative, the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, said that the initiative would result in higher electric bills. The coalition said, “A scheme to seize Maine’s electric grid by eminent domain would create a government-controlled utility — and we would all be on the hook for the cost.”

No Blank Checks campaign said, “A proposal is being circulated that would authorize seizing the state’s electric utilities, creating billions of dollars in debt we would all have to pay off through our electric bills. The people pushing this proposal can’t say exactly how much it would cost, and they are asking us to write a blank check. Voters should know the price tag and get a chance to vote on that debt first.”

In Maine, a citizen initiative can only appear on the ballot as an indirect initiative. The initiative only goes to the ballot if the legislature rejects the initiative or does not take action by the end of the session. If the legislature passes the initiative, and the governor signs it, the initiative becomes law.

There were no measures on the Maine ballot in 2022. The last indirect initiative to appear on the ballot was in 2021, when voters approved an initiative to prohibit the construction of electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region.

So far, there are no ballot questions on the 2023 Maine ballot. Besides the No Blank Checks initiative and the Pine Tree Power Company initiative, there are two other initiatives that have a chance of appearing on the ballot in 2023. One initiative would prohibit foreign spending in elections in Maine and is currently certified to the Legislature, and the other, which is awaiting signature verification from the secretary of state, would allow for vehicle owners and independent repair facilities access to vehicle on-board diagnostic systems.

If the state legislature rejects or does not take action on the submitted initiatives, they will go to Maine voters at the election on November 7, 2023.

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Thirty governors have given their State of the State addresses so far in 2023

All 50 state constitutions mandate that the governor give an annual (or regular) report to the state legislature on the condition of the state. This speech is most commonly referred to as the State of the State address, although it is known as the Condition of the State address in Iowa and the State of the Commonwealth address in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. 

As of January 29, 30 governors—14 Democrats and 16 Republicans—have delivered their 2023 annual State of the State address to their state legislature. Eight more governors are scheduled to deliver theirs between now and March 7. 

Four of the governors who have delivered their addresses so far—Katie Hobbs (D-Ariz.), Josh Green (D-Hawaii), James Pillen (R-Neb.), and Joe Lombardo (R-Nev.)—were first elected in November of last year and were giving their annual report for the first time. The 26 other governors who addressed their state legislatures were returning incumbents. 

Besides reporting on the condition of their states, the governors also laid out their priorities and goals for this year’s legislative session in their addresses. Below you can see a word cloud of the most common words used in the addresses delivered by Democratic and Republican chief state executives so far this year.

While some words like “state” (used 1029 times), “people” (415) and “work” (357) feature prominently in both Democratic and Republican addresses, others appear more often on one side than on the other. 

In Democratic addresses, the words “housing” (used 158 times), “families” (145) and “health” (145 times) are near the top. In Republican addresses, the words “million” (used 207 times), “tax” (174), and “school” (172) are among the most common. 

Each year, Ballotpedia tracks all of the State of the State addresses given by governors around the country. To see a list of all the addresses given so far this year, click on the link below. 

Pennsylvania House adjourns, package of constitutional amendments won’t appear on the May ballot

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives adjourned on January 24, 2023, affecting a package of three constitutional amendments that could have appeared on ballot for May 16, 2023. 

According to the Department of State, the Pennsylvania General Assembly needed to have the amendments passed by Friday, January 27, to appear on the May ballot. The deadline in the Pennsylvania Constitution to pass and advertise the proposed amendments is February 16, and according to the Department of State, the Legislature needed to have already passed the package of amendments in order to give the newspapers time to advertise them.

The next possible election for the amendments to be placed on the ballot for Pennsylvania voters is the November 2023 general election.

The three amendments were passed in the previous legislative session at different periods. The first amendment would create a two-year period for individuals to file civil suits regarding childhood sexual abuse that have otherwise exceeded the statute of limitations. This was introduced as House Bill 14 (HB 14) and passed both the Pennsylvania House and Senate in March of 2021.

The other two amendments were part of a package of five amendments, known as Senate Bill 106 (SB 106), that passed in July 2022. Two of these amendments—one requiring voters to present a voter ID when casting their ballot, and another that allows the state legislature to pass concurrent resolutions, which the governor cannot veto, to disapprove of regulations—were packaged with the amendment regarding child sexual abuse lawsuits as Senate Bill 1 (SB 1). SB 1 passed the Senate on January 11, 2023. Twenty-eight senators, 27 Republicans and 1 Democrat, voted for the package, while 20 senators, all of them Democrats, voted against the package (1 Democrat did not vote). The package of amendments was passed by the Senate, but the process came to a stalemate in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R) said, “There is no reason for the House of Representatives to reject Senate Bill 1 — unless whoever is running the House of Representatives seems to think there’s a political reason that two of the three questions should not be put before the voters.”

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D), said that the amendment regarding child sexual abuse lawsuits should be passed individually. “If it gets on the ballot, it’s going to be on the ballot by itself, not with these other constitutional amendments,” said Rozzi.

Currently, in Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party controls the governor’s office, while the Republican Party controls the State Senate. Neither party controls a majority of seats in the House. Republicans hold a plurality of seats. There are 101 Republicans and 99 Democrats in the House, with a Democrat serving as House speaker. There are 3 vacancies in the House of Representatives, which will be filled with special elections occurring in Allegheny County on February 7. If Democrats win those seats, Democrats will have a majority – 102 seats – in the House.

In Pennsylvania, constitutional amendments require legislative approval during two successive legislative sessions before they’re referred to the ballot for voters to decide. Because these amendments were approved by both chambers of the state legislature in the last legislative session, and by the Senate in this session, they would need to pass the House before they could appear on the ballot.

Due to the adjournment of the House and the passing of the Department of State deadline, the earliest election for these amendments to appear on the ballot is during the November 2023 general election.

The House is expected to reconvene on February 27, 2023.

108 new state legislative leaders elected

Forty-five states have begun their 2023 state legislative sessions. At the start of these sessions, legislators typically select new House and Senate leadership. So far, at least 266 leadership elections have taken place. Here’s a rundown of what we know so far:

Legislators re-elected 158 leaders in 38 states. Legislators elected 108 new leaders. Of those changes in leadership, 55 occurred in states with Republican trifectas, 31 occurred in states with Democratic trifectas, and the remaining 22 changes happened in states with divided government.

Thirty-nine Senate president elections have taken place as of this writing. Out of those, 13 Senate presidents changed. A Senate president presides over legislative sessions and ensures that members of the chamber abide by procedural rules.

Just one Senate president change resulted in a change in party leadership. In Minnesota, whose divided government became a Democratic trifecta as a result of the 2022 elections, Democratic legislators elected Bobby Joe Champion as Senate president, replacing Republican Rep. David Osmek.

Out of all the Senate president elections, 12 Democratic presidents remained the same, and three changed leaders. On the Republican side, 14 Republican presidents remained the same while nine changed leaders.

Forty-three House speaker elections have taken place. Out of those, 14 speakers of the House changed. A House speaker serves as the chief spokesman for the lower chamber, presides over legislative sessions, directs the legislative process, and performs additional administrative and procedural duties.

Two House speaker changes resulted in a change in party leadership. In Michigan, Republican House Speaker Jason Wentworth was replaced by Democratic Rep. Joseph Tate. In Pennsylvania, Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler was replaced by Democratic Rep. Mark Rozzi. Michigan’s divided government became a Democratic trifecta as a result of the 2022 elections. Pennsylvania is under divided government.

Out of all the House speaker elections, 13 Democratic speakers remained the same, and three changed leaders. On the Republican side, 15 speakers remained the same while 10 changed leaders.

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Montana governor announces ban on ESG considerations in state investments

The office of Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) released the following statement on January 18 announcing that Montana has joined several other states in prohibiting non-financial considerations, including considerations related to ESG, in the state’s investments:

“Governor Greg Gianforte and the Montana Board of Investments today announced the State of Montana has reaffirmed its commitment to maximizing returns on the over $26 billion in investments of the state’s financial assets, not advancing a political agenda through Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing.

“‘As the State of Montana invests its financial assets, our priority is and should always be maximizing returns for our shareholders – the people of Montana,’ Governor Gianforte said. ‘On my watch, we won’t undermine taxpayers’ returns on investment in favor of the trend of activist, woke capitalism through ESG investing.’

“Late last year, the Board of Investments revoked the ability of the state’s investment managers to vote the state’s proxies which align with ESG investment decisions.

“‘The Board’s fiduciary duty is to maximize returns independent of political agendas, social pressures or any other non-pecuniary factors,’ said Dan Villa, Executive Director of the Board of Investments. ‘We have and will continue to grow Montana’s wealth without bias and based solely on what is in the best interest of the beneficiaries of the assets we invest.'”

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West Virginia Senate passes unemployment insurance indexing bill

The West Virginia State Senate on January 23 passed a bill 27-5 that would index the length of unemployment insurance benefits to the state’s unemployment rate. During times when the unemployment rate is below 5.5%, unemployed workers could collect a maximum of 12 weeks of benefits. For each 0.5% increase in the unemployment rate, the maximum benefit duration would increase by one week under the bill, with a maximum benefit length of 20 weeks during times of high unemployment.

West Virginia’s current maximum benefit length is 26 weeks. The state’s unemployment rate was 4.1% in November and December, according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, meaning the maximum weekly benefit would fall by 14 weeks (to a maximum of 12 weeks) if the bill passes and the unemployment rate remains stable.

The bill would also require WorkForce West Virginia—the agency in charge of administering the unemployment insurance program in the state—to verify the identities of applicants and take additional steps to review what the legislation describes as suspicious claims.

Claimants would also have to complete at least four qualifying work search activities per week (such as interviewing or applying for a job). Under current law, claimants are eligible for benefits if they are “doing that which a reasonably prudent person in his or her circumstances would do in seeking work,” with no specific requirements.

The bill now heads to the West Virginia House of Delegates for consideration.

Unemployment insurance is a joint federal and state program that provides temporary monetary benefits to eligible laid-off workers who are actively seeking new employment. Qualifying individuals receive unemployment compensation as a percentage of their lost wages in the form of weekly cash benefits while they search for new employment.

The federal government oversees the general administration of state unemployment insurance programs. The states control the specific features of their unemployment insurance programs, such as eligibility requirements and length of benefits.

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Oklahoma will vote on marijuana legalization in March. Ohio could follow in November

Voters in Oklahoma will decide on State Question 820, an initiative to legalize marijuana, on March 7, 2023. Voters in Ohio could decide on an initiative to legalize marijuana in Nov. 2023.

Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, which is leading the campaign in support of State Question 820, wanted the citizen-initiated measure on the ballot in 2022. However, due to legal challenges and signature deadlines, the measure could not be placed on the ballot and was set to be voted on at a later election date. On Oct. 18, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) called a special election for State Question 820 on March 7, 2023.

State Question 820 would legalize the possession and consumption of marijuana for adults 21 years old and older. The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority would be responsible for marijuana business licensing and regulations. Sales of marijuana would be taxed at 15%. People would be allowed to possess, transport, and distribute up to one ounce (28.35 grams) of marijuana, eight grams of marijuana in a concentrated form, and/or eight grams or less of concentrated marijuana in marijuana-infused products. Under State Question 820, individuals could possess up to six mature marijuana plants and up to six seedlings. The initiative would also provide a process for individuals to seek the expungement or modification of certain previous marijuana-related convictions or sentences.

Through Sept. 30, 2022, Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws raised $2.74 million and spent $2.57 million. The largest contributor was the Just Trust for Action, which donated $1.06 million.

In Ohio, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted 136,729 valid signatures for a marijuana legalization initiative. As initiated statutes are indirect in Ohio, the proposal was presented to the Ohio General Assembly. Legislators have until May 3, 2023, to approve the measure. Should legislators reject or take no action on the initiative, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would be required to collect an additional 124,046 valid signatures within 90 days, which would be around Aug. 1, 2023. A successful signature drive would result in the initiative appearing on the ballot for Nov. 7, 2023.

Through Dec. 9, 2022, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol raised $1.50 million and spent $1.42 million. The largest contributor was the Marijuana Policy Project, which provided $840,000.

As of Jan. 2023, 21 states and Washington, D.C., had legalized the possession and personal use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

  • In 12 states and D.C., the ballot initiative process was used to legalize marijuana.
  • In two states, the legislature referred a measure to the ballot for voter approval.
  • In seven states, bills to legalize marijuana were enacted into law.

From 2011 to 2021, an average of 33 statewide ballot measures — five initiated measures and 28 referred measures — appeared on ballots in odd-numbered years.

Marijuana legalization initiatives targeting the 2024 ballot have also been filed in Wyoming, Florida, and Nebraska.

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